Even age-old fairy tales could use a facelift from time to time. Director Osgood Perkins opted to make a few rather significant changes to the Brothers Grimm tale in his new movie, Gretel & Hansel, in theaters January 31. And if they work, they'll make for a nice change of pace. The way Perkins tells it, the primary reason he took those artistic liberties in the first place was in an effort to give the ancient tale a fresher, more feminist twist.
What Happens In The Original "Hansel & Gretel" Story
In the classic fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel are two young children who are cast outside their home by a cruel stepmother during a famine after she decides to sacrifice the siblings to save herself and their father, a woodsman. The first time she attempts to leave them in the woods, Hansel cleverly leaves white pebbles that he drops onto the forest floor, which he then uses to lead him and Gretel back home. The second time, however, the brother and sister pair aren’t quite so lucky: this time, Hansel only has bread crumbs to leave a trail, which are unsurprisingly gobbled up by birds. And so they are lost.
While lost, they stumble upon a house made of candy, cakes, and other sweets, and they devour the goods to their heart’s content. A witch who lives in the home invites them in, with plans to fatten them up to eat them both. When Hansel has gotten plump to the point of prime eating size, the witch tries to get Gretel to pop into the oven to test its temperature. Clever Gretel, however, plays dumb, forcing the witch to climb inside the oven herself, at which point Gretel shuts and locks the door behind her, burning the witch alive.
Changes To The Story In Gretel & Hansel
In Perkins’ take on the tale, Gretel (IT star Sophie Lillis) is actually forefronted as the protagonist, with Hansel (newcomer Samuel Leakey) as her younger brother. The shift in dynamic gives Gretel more agency, versus, say, having to be comforted by her brother after they get lost in the woods.
Though the main plot points of the narrative remain the same — the siblings are left in the middle of the woods, and they stumble upon a cottage where a witch lives — the focus is decidedly different. This is Gretel’s coming-of-age story, and she actually learns a thing or two from Holda (Alice Krige), the witch who becomes their captor, which is not something that happened in the original fairy tale.
“What’s compelling to me is the devouring mother dynamic,” Perkins said in an interview with Yahoo! News. “The idea of a mother who is equally creative and destructive. That’s something that Alice and I really wanted to make sure existed at all times: the witch really loves and respects Gretel as much as she wants to destroy her.”
Case in point: Holda tries to instill some rather feminist ideas into young Gretel’s mind. In one scene, the witch warns Gretel that her relationship to her younger brother will change over time, from love to fear to hate, foreshadowing the evolution of toxic masculinity. Holda wants Gretel to push back against the patriarchy, in other words, and as Gretel’s stand-in maternal figure, wants to make sure she understands how to harness her power.
“Gretel starts off being very yoked to her younger brother, and it’s about the elemental fear of loss of innocence, being turned out into the world before you’re ready,” Perkins said in a behind-the-scenes featurette for Gretel & Hansel. As such, Gretel’s ability to wrest back control of the situation in the end isn’t just a case of good triumphing evil, but also a girl coming into her own and learning to take charge of her own destiny.
One of the other major changes that Perkins made in Gretel & Hansel is less moral-driven, but equally significant: the house where Holda lives is no longer made of sweets.
“Early on, I said, ‘It better not be a candy house!’” Perkins told Yahoo! News. “It’s a cottage with a brutalist vibe. I wanted it to lean heavily on the elemental quality of the fairy tale, but also make everything belong to this movie.”